Set in the early 1920s, Thomas Jane plays a farmer, husband, and father, Wilfred James. He’s trying to make his farm life work with his son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), and his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), but countless roadblocks stop him from having a carefree, straw-chewing existence. Arlette owns the farmland and wants to sell it and move into town; Wilfred wants to stay and raise his son as a farmer, so he takes it upon himself to make sure they aren't uprooted. What follows is yet another fascinating Stephen King adaptation, making it three for four this year (not all things serve the Beam, unfortunately). Not only does 1922 capture an undeniably Stephen King-esque atmosphere, it holds perhaps the best performance by Thomas Jane, who completely disappears into the role of Wilfred—a man wrapped up in lies and emotionally and psychically disintegrates through the film’s runtime.
1922 isn’t as thoroughly blood-soaked as other adaptations of King’s work. What it does have is a constant sense of dread, highlighted by the tremendous work by cinematographer Ben Richardson. The sunny glow of the summer season drains as the steely blue winter pushes Wilfred into madness. And, while the film leans heavy on its dramatic moral machinations (shades of The Shawshank Redemption here and there), there are moments of absolute terror that will absolutely stick with you.
Wilfred’s solution to all of his problems? A murder. And who does he convince into committing the murder with him? His son. What begins as a domestic drama becomes a horror film when Wilfred and Henry follow through with the crime and cover it up by dropping the body into their well. They throw the police off their trail as the body starts to haunt Wilfred. Instead of the beating of a Tell-Tale heart, the terror is embodied by a rats’ nest that spreads from the corpse-filled well then moves into Wilfred's house. The rats at play are reminiscent of the cockroaches in the King-scripted “They’re Creeping Up On You” segment of Creepshow—no one likes one (1) rat and just imagine hundreds of them rattling around in your walls. It’s terrifying.
Shifting from the paranormal and real-world horror, 1922 puts Wilfred through the wringer. It mostly works—ghosts haunt him, while he also deals with his farmland dying in front of him. He mortgages his land for quick money, which digs his grave quicker. His teenage son gets his girlfriend pregnant, which doesn’t make things any better, as the young girl is the daughter of Wilfred’s neighbor. It builds and builds and builds and the bodies pile up.
Jane grunts and mumbles throughout, his voice indistinguishable from any of his previous roles. His complexion is sunbaked as he shuffles along as the middle-aged man with deep, dark secrets. 1922 is Jane’s third and best King adaptation (it barely passes The Mist and let’s not even talk about Dreamcatcher) and it is without-a-doubt one of the best performances of his career. The entire cast takes this tale of terror deadly serious— Arlette's presence underlines Wilfred's actions, and that's thanks to Molly Parker. Dylan Schmid as Henry grows up pretty quick, going from hopeless romantic to frantic murder accomplice, and Schmid succeeds in not making that development trite.
Writer-director Zak Hilditch understands exactly what makes a Stephen King adaptation quintessentially Stephen King—the most King-esque aspect is how the film's plot is framed. As the film begins, Wilfred recounts his evil deeds on pen and paper, in solace in a hotel room. King protagonists love to rationalize and journalize their sins. Mike Flanagan’s take on King, Gerald’s Game, understood this, too. When you have a strong lead, who recites these lines with enough conviction, you can’t help but go along for the ride. The horrific visuals have substance because it all leads back to those confessionals. It can be overbearing if not handled correctly, but Gerald’s Game and 1922 present two perfect examples of how to convert King’s words onto the screen. And, 1922 is once again a testament to the work of Stephen King—it's a story that gets under your skin, and whether it's on the page or on the screen, that's exactly the effect King wants his audience to experience.